Responding to suffering: An examination of Horatio Spafford’s hymn

After receiving the words “Saved alone” in a telegram from his wife, Horatio Spafford came to understand that his four daughters had drowned on their journey to England. Their ship sank in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and their bodies were never recovered. This came after the Spafford’s only son died of scarlet fever four years earlier. Upon sailing to the scene of the tragedy, Spafford was overcome with grief, but overwhelmed with the peace that passes all understanding. And only hours later, Spafford penned the poem “It Is Well with My Soul.”

It is said that nothing can quench the pain that extends from loss, and in a sense, that is true. Stories of grief sometimes end on a dreadful note, but holding out for hope in these moments is the only way that we can show faith in hard times, just as Job did. Christ-followers need not be intimidated by the draw of hopelessness, as our hope, though often disguised by our funeral eyes and distraught disposition, lives within us (Ephesians 1:19-20). If the hope that we rely on lives within us, then even when all is lost, as it was for Spafford, there will never be a time when sorrow wills itself more powerfully than within a Christian’s hope.

Photo provided by Artvee | Stormy Sea (1650) by Jacob Van Ruisdael

What peace can be found outside of the hope Spafford held onto? There is, indeed, some hope in the world, but only in the times when deceiving ourselves about the power of God. If God is sovereign — if he is the judge — then we must do our best to keep his commands. If he is not, then we must find another god to worship. Ramesses, the Egyptian pharaoh in Exodus, insisted on the continued worship of the many gods of the Egyptian people instead of the one God of Moses. After God imparted plagues on Egypt, targeting the false gods therein, the land was left desolate. Pharoah’s mistaken hope in creation left his entire nation scarred by the strength of the only God with whom we have hope and a future.

“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come / Let this blest assurance control / That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate / And hath shed his own blood for my soul.” This verse from “It Is Well with My Soul” encapsulates the message that Spafford left behind after his death while on a mission in Jerusalem. His quiet life of service and faith can be seen as merely “an inspirational story of a great man,” or the result of what the Holy Spirit’s intervention in a person allows them to manifest. As this song is sung continually at funerals and in church services, let the impact of these words be a call to live with a hope that knows nothing of disappointment. In times of loss and suffering, may it be remembered that only hope in Christ makes the soul well (Psalm 62:5-6).

Luke Kilker is the opinion editor for the Liberty Champion

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